WHITE, John (c. 1750-1832)


WHITE, John (c. 1750-1832)
chief surgeon to the first fleet
is stated to have been born in Sussex in 1750, but as we find him described in 1786 as "a young man" (H.R. of N.S.W., vol. I, part 2, p. 25), the correct date was possibly somewhat later. He was appointed a surgeon's mate in the navy in 1778, in 1780 was promoted surgeon, and in 1786 held that rank on H.M.S. Irresistible. On 24 October of that year he was appointed surgeon-general of New South Wales. In March 1787 he joined the first fleet of transports at Plymouth, and found that the convicts had been living for some time on salt meat, a bad preparation for a long voyage. He succeeded in getting supplies of fresh meat and vegetables for them, and in arranging that they should be allowed up on deck in relays to obtain fresh air. His sensible and humane treatment was probably the reason why the number of convicts who died during the voyage was not greater. After the fleet arrived in January 1788, White organized a hospital, but was much handicapped by the shortage of medical necessaries. He became interested in the flora and fauna of the new country and early in 1790 published in London, his Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales. This had 65 copper-plate engravings of birds, animals, and botanical specimens, and during the next five years was translated into German and French. White afterwards became pessimistic about the future of the settlement and, having obtained leave of absence, sailed for England on 17 December 1794. Early in 1796 William Balmain, his assistant, who had taken over his duties, applied for the full salary of principal surgeon, and in May 1797 a government order stated that Balmain had been appointed to that position in the room of John White who had resigned. For the next four years White was a surgeon on the Royal William, and for 20 years he was stationed first at Sheerness and then at Chatham dockyard. He retired on a pension in 1820, and died at Worthing, Sussex, on 20 February 1832.
D. Anderson, John White; Surgeon-General to the First Fleet; Historical Records of Australia, ser. I, vols. I and II; G. Mackaness, Admiral Arthur Phillip; G. B. Barton, History of New South Wales, vol. I.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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